Meet Missouri's Next Poet Laureate—Maryfrances Wagner
Updated: Sep 2
By Annie Newcomer:
Governor appoints Salvatore's Daughter
as Missouri's Next Poet Laureate.
When I opened my email from the Missouri Arts Council and saw that the state's governor had tapped Maryfrances Wagner for the position of Missouri's 6th poet laureate, continuing a line of respected poet laureates from the Show Me State, I smiled. One of my favorite quotes, "Chance favors the prepared mind," flashed before me because I cannot imagine a person who has better prepared herself to take on this role, with all the challenges that are in store for her as our country sputters out of a pandemic. Maryfrances is an esteemed poet, a masterful storyteller, as well as a tireless advocate in her literary community whose profound love of her extensive Italian-American family illuminates her work.
But what exactly is a poet laureate?
The term laureate means "the recipient of honor or recognition for achievement in an art or science." But successfully filling the shoes of a poet laureate actually means so much more. The person designated this honor makes a commitment to not only continue their own walk with poetry but offer ways for bringing others into the poetic fold. A poet laureate wears many hats: wordsmith, storyteller, motivator, and promoter. To be successful in this role, one needs to be imaginative, caring, creative, and in love with not only the rhyme and imagery in Life's words but for the people, the audience, who daily sing Life's song. A poet laureate is a good role model who sets the table with the goal of inviting others in. So a poet laureate is not just good at one thing; a poet laureate is the triathlete of the Literary World, triply blessed in unimaginable ways to most laypeople.
August 10, 2021, marked the 200th anniversary of Missouri's entrance into the Union as the 24th state. The bicentennial is both a time for celebration and a time of reflection. Poetry is a vehicle to connect the past, understand the present, and contemplate the future. So this was a fitting day for our new poet laureate to read her inaugural poem, "Missouri"—a poem inspired by the natural beauty of the state created to celebrate this occasion and performed on the steps of the capitol in Jefferson City. Present in the audience was the
magnificent sun, bright in its blessing. One cannot help but wonder if this was Nature's way of beaming its approval down on this new appointee.
The chorus frogs creee
and trill. I stretch my arms to the cave state,
start of the Pony Express, rolling hills
and river bluffs, prairie and plateau, earth
solid beneath my feet
This interview is my response, as an observer on the sidelines, to show you why I believe
Missourians are in store for a wonderful two years with this poet, Salvatore's daughter, who
describes her father's hands as:
"the flat grooved nails/hand's that fixed the doll's arms,/
mended Wisker's ears, checked homework."
AN: Maryfrances, welcome to Flapper Press and congratulations on becoming Missouri's 6th Poet Laureate. What I love about the concept of a poet laureate is that an esteemed poet with literary chops agrees to go out and engage in the community and share about this often misunderstood gem, poetry. Might you express to our Flapper Press readers what this honor means to you?
MFW: Annie, thank you for inviting me to speak on becoming Missouri’s 6th Poet Laureate. I think the honor gives me a greater chance to introduce people to poetry and to help support more writers. I already support writers through The Writers Place, but having a state platform will enable me to reach more people in promoting poetry, students, and other poets.
AN: As a teacher and a parent myself, I understand the impact a family makes in a child's development. So I would like to start by asking you about your childhood and how literature played a part in your upbringing.
MFW: In terms of literary, when I was young, our house was always a silent place in the evening. We didn't watch television or listen to a radio. We read. My parents went to the library every week and checked out books for themselves, my brother, and me. In the evening after dinner, we all found a good comfortable place in the house and read until we were tired. That changed once we moved to the suburbs, but all of us kept reading, just not as many hours a day.
AN: As I prepared for this interview, I bought a copy of Salvatore's Daughter, one of your early poetry books, and was drawn to your deep connection with your father. Might you share a little about him?
MFW: My dad was kind, ethical, and generous of spirit. He was positive and loved his family and friends. He always championed my brother and me. He was our best fan, and he was there at every open house, every game where I marched as a Jaywalker, every swimming meet for my brother, every award we ever received. He was solid.
When I started writing poetry, my father said, "Don't forget to write about your heritage," and I always have. I captured my family through the stories my aunts told. My father was proud to be an American, but he also loved his Italian culture. We grew up with that culture, and it's very much a part of my poetry.
AN: In a recent press release announcing your appointment to this position, you were quoted as saying that you'd, "like to find ways to reach out to people who don't usually read poetry or even think that they like it." This reminded me of a quote from the renowned poet Ellen Bass who said, "I think many people love poetry who don’t know they love it. People are sometimes afraid of poetry or they have been introduced to poetry that doesn’t speak to them."
Please share some of your ideas for introducing people to poetry that does speak to them?
MFW: As you know, I taught for many years, and any time I introduced a poetry unit, my students often cringed and were sure they wouldn’t get it. Over the years many said they didn’t get poetry. To them, poetry was too much of an inaccessible mystery. I asked them to give me a chance to show them that it wasn’t. In my creative writing classes, I had an array of fun activities that went along with writing poetry. We actually did things with poems after we wrote them. I sent student work out for publication, set up readings, took them to workshops, and turned poetry into art we hung. Introducing poetry to those who don’t read or think they like it has been a goal of mine since I started teaching. Naturally, I wouldn’t start out with something like “The Wasteland” by T. S. Eliot or any poem particularly contingent on knowledge of mythology or great works of literature because it takes a little time to build up to those poems.
Poetry can be funny, rhythmic, quirky and joyful in itself, but its greatest gift is its ability to touch the human spirit and yield over and over again. The poet’s story becomes everyone’s story, and the readers find their way into the poem from their own experiences. I think most poets want to move the reader and make a difference. I try to write and choose accessible poems and to introduce them unexpectedly. For example, during National Poetry Month, I have run off poems I think might entertain people and handed them to people as I pass them—a grocery clerk, someone getting a beverage in a convenience store, passing someone while shopping, etc. I leave them in coffee shops, restrooms, libraries, doctor's offices, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, any place I go. Sometimes I’ve attached a poem to a flower and handed it to someone. I’ve sent people poems in the mail. I started a Writers group on Facebook, now with over 2,500 members, where I post poems, opportunities for workshops and readings, celebrations of publication, new books, awards. Any member can post as well, so writers are sharing with one another. I do the same thing on The Writers Place’s interactive Facebook page. Some of the people who have joined either group are beginners to the craft of writing and trying to learn as much as they can. Some are established writers making announcements. Some are editors posting for submissions. Some write fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. Some edit magazines. Some don’t write at all. Some are just curious. Some post their own work or ask questions about writing, workshops, or places to read. It’s a consortium of writers of all styles, genres, and levels. Of course, teaching workshops is something I’ve done for years, and I will still be doing that in an effort to get students involved in the process of writing and reading.
AN: I love asking poets to examine the choices that led to their decision to choose the poetic path, because it isn't necessarily an easy one. So will you share a little about your poetic journey and how you knew this was the path for you?
MFW: My poetry journey began as a child. My mother wrote little poems with only a few lines, but she’d drop those poems into our lunchboxes, our suitcases when we traveled, or we’d find them on our pillows after special events. Once I was assigned to write on a specific topic in junior high, and my parents suggested I try it with a poem instead of an essay, so I did, and the teacher read it out loud and put it in the school literary magazine. The journey had begun. No matter what I was doing, I never stopped writing poetry. I’ve written academic papers, essays, and reviews, but I’m still always drawn to writing a poem. The fact that I wasn’t writing poetry because it was assigned, I knew it felt like a natural act I had to do. When I first began writing, my father told me, “Don’t forget to honor your heritage,” and I have faithfully done that. Family is a major theme in my poetry.
AN: Concerning your poetic life, let's imagine Robert Frost asking you this question, a question that one associates with his poem, "The Road Not Taken." Has it made all the difference that you chose poetry? How would you answer him?
MFW: I don’t know if it’s made “all the difference” universally, but it has personally. Writing poetry is something I can’t imagine not doing.
As Emily Dickinson says, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
When I read a poem I love, that’s how I feel, and when I write a poem, the act of creating is a journey in itself: meditation, exploration, problem solving, word searching, pondering, rewriting, tinkering. It takes me a long time to finish a poem. I know some poets produce two or more books of poetry a year, and I don’t know how they do that. I spend a lot of time revising, and I like to let poems rest a while so that I can look at them with fresh eyes again before I pronounce them done.
AN: Maryfrances, Flapper Press thanks you for your time and for all that you have shared. We wish you a blessed and joyful tenure as the poet laureate from the Show Me State. In closing, I wanted to note that the esteemed poet and teacher Gary Gildner wrote this about you:
“Maryfrances is someone you would like to know. If you do already, that’s good, that’s just what the winemaker wanted.”
My prayer for you is that in the next two years Missourians really get a chance to know YOU, the poet and the person.
MFW: Thank you, Annie.
AN: Please share 4 poems that you feel are good representations of your work and give us a little backstory on each.
MFW: I have always written in a variety of poetic styles. I try hard not to keep sounding like myself over and over. Two common themes in my writing are family and nature, but I also write poems that involve my teaching experience. Several times I’ve tried to capture my students’ stories because they are moving. As for family poems, I’ve written a whole chapbook on my Aunt Mary, who was quite a character, as well as poems about my family history. I was lucky enough to have aunts who were wonderful storytellers. I’ve often written poems by pulling from those stories they told.
The first poem I will share is a family poem. My family always made wine every two years. My Uncle Sebastiano taught my father and his brothers how to make wine. They bought barrels at a distillery and ordered grapes from California. It was a ritual for them in so many ways, and when my uncle died, my father inherited the press, so he and his brothers carried on the tradition in our basement. We only drank wine with dinner or if guests came to call, but it was a daily staple at the dinner table. My poems often have layers of meaning, so the poem is perfectly accessible on a literal level, but there are underlying levels as well, and the underlying message in this poem says something about my father, who was my personal hero.
Rows of stacked crates
bled grape juice
on the basement floor
until the right day, when press spikes
broke through wrinkled skins,
mashed out a flow of juice
flooding across wooden slats
into buckets we carried to barrels
until our soles were suction cups
on a floor scattered with stems.
Uncle and father kept
bottles of their best years
stacked on a shelf
above their barrels.
From first pressing
to final cap,
they savored swigs
until they sampled all.
Later I loaded grapes,
when father inherited the press,
my own barrel beside my brother's.
I went home wrapped in fermented scent,
hair sticky with twigs.
Now my brother packs up
He will take his inheritance home,
try for a good year
with his own sons.
Before packing the shelf,
we swig from a good bottle,
first time without father
who could save it all
if it started to turn,
clear it if it went cloudy,
Salvatore who knew the right day
to bring wine to the family table.
This next poem is also a family poem from when my brother was dying of cancer. This is also a layered poem and a conceit about his dying. I’ve chosen it because it has a different tone and multiple things going on in the poem. My brother and father were hunters, and my brother collected guns. He mostly cleaned them and admired them, but only used them for hunting or target practice. He was always a good shot and received multiple awards for his shooting when he was in the military.
The Last Shot
Colt 45. M-16. Glock 19.
My brother and I watch The History of Guns.
Diagrams and battle scenes,
explain the ways of war. I learn
the dominance of an Uzi, the clout of a Luger.
My brother points at guns he’s owned,
before he oiled and wrapped each one
to send home with his sons, before
his doctors started another treatment.
Last summer I lined up with his children
to shoot a Coke can with his AK-47.
He insisted on where we pointed our toes,
pulled back our shoulders, slumping
under the rifle’s heft. Whether we hit
dirt or can, we handed off the gun,
changed by the force of that bullet,
eager to see my brother shift and nod approval.
He wishes he’d taught me a better feel
for a trigger, the upper hand in the site.
He thinks I should own
at least one gun. Snub nose. P-32.
The borrowed BB gun doesn’t count.
On that summer day, he stood so small,
his head hairless, the perfect marksman
now a shadow leaning. With a patch
over one eye, he shot his last time,
the kick knocking him off his feet.
The war inside him using up his arsenal,
his t-shirt a white flag billowing,
he grabbed the side of the shed and hung on.
I have always loved to cook. Italians place importance on food. We love to feed people. This poem is about how we have learned to be comfortable in the kitchen. I learned to cook from my mother and my aunts, and they rarely ever measured anything. My mother didn’t even have measuring cups or spoons. They also always improvised and figured out ways to make the basic recipe taste better by adding a little of this or that. I do that too with almost everything I cook.
When I Am In My Kitchen
Under my palms, dough rises on Nonna’s breadboard.
Knives, dependable as good clocks, ease through
fish and avocado, chop onions or eggs into dice.
I mince and mash, sauté and stew,
sift and fold, wield spatulas and spoons.
With metal whips, I coax froth and foam.
I slip basil into marriages of garlic and olive oil,
know dash from smidgen or pinch.
I grate and grind, zing zest, and flip.
I’m not afraid of cardamom and coriander, fennel
and bay. I tuck dill into hummus, know the ménage
of rosemary, sage and savory; cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.
I remember mother’s meringues, the melt
of her teacakes, the meld of her stews—
and Nonna and her pots heavy and true,
her palm measuring salt, its immutable truth,
its briny clip in the mouth, its promise to preserve.
This poem is about a teaching experience. I thought I might offer one of those poems as I have often written about my experiences teaching. This was a moving moment in a classroom, and I tried to capture the innocence I saw in this student. His name wasn’t really Leroy. Everyone viewed him as a troublemaker, someone to avoid, but this simple moment said something else to me.
Mending Leroy’s Sweater in Composition
Leroy swaggers into my class without books
or pen, jams hands into his pockets, face
partly hidden under his black hoodie.
He stares at his desk after all questions.
Students step around him and his gym bag
to trade papers. They have always kept
their distance. His fight last weekend
after the football game gave them proof.
He waits for the principal to suspend him.
He’ll be gone five school days for the fight
behind the stadium, blood scrubbed clean
now from asphalt, bats, and knuckles.
A row of stitches jags across his eyebrow.
He rocks in his seat, glares. Heads bowed,
students write comments on rough drafts.
The register hisses. It is snowing.
I look up. Leroy opens his hoodie to show me
the rip in his sweater, sets a button on my desk.
We stare at each other. I rummage for a needle,
point to the window where light is best.
The ground outside is covered and unmarred by tracks.
I pin the rip along the seam near his waist, think
of how to situate myself, the angle so low. He
rests a hand on my arm. I kneel beside him and sew.
Maryfrances Wagner's most recent book is The Immigrants' New Camera (2018). She has co-edited several poetry anthologies and the New Letters Review of Books, and has co-edited I-70 Review magazine since 2010. She has also helped coordinate, sponsor, or participate in writing workshops, public readings, and literary and cross-cultural events, according to the Missouri Arts Council, which last year named her Individual Artist of the year in its annual awards.
Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Point—a place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing. Annie also helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to write poetry!